Artist Focus: Ola Gjeilo

Welcome to Global House of Music’s first Artist Focus. This will be a recurring post, where we will feature a great musician or composer and give you a little practical task to complete, as part of your music learning. In this post we will:

Learn about a contemporary classical composer

Listen to some of his works

Test our ability to identify instruments in an ensemble

As you can see, in this week’s artist focus we are going to do some close listening. We’ve spoken about listening before, and we suggested that you bring music into your home. You might be wondering what music to listen to, so this article is going to give you some ideas to get started.

After all, learning a musical instrument is as much about listening as it is about playing. This is because every song or piece of music is designed to communicate something to you and with you. Finland’s greatest composer once said, in his famously brooding, mysterious way, that “music begins where the possibilities of language end”. You can learn more about him here.

I think we all know what he means. There are some things that you can’t say in words. For example, when we are young, we draw pictures and sing songs to represent the things that matter to us: family, animals, the ocean. As we grow, some of us continue to do this, because somehow it’s the only way to really say what we want to say. Every time you listen to a great piece of music, you are hearing someone working hard to express an idea that just won’t fit into words. And composing music is certainly hard work. Learning about how composers write music will teach you a great deal about your instrument and how it fits into the bigger picture. So let’s start with a short biography.

A Living Composer

There’s a misconception that classical music is all about people who lived long, long ago. In fact, it’s a living tradition that continues to this day. The composer we are talking about this week is a young man. His name is Ola Gjeilo. Most of his compositions are for piano or choir, with orchestral accompaniment. He grew up in a little town in Norway before venturing to the United States and England to further his musical studies.

Whenever I think of Norway, I think of frozen fjords and huge mountains with forests draped over them. But most of all, I think of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. I’m sad to say I’ve never seen them myself, but I hope to someday. They were probably a regular feature of the young composer’s life. It’s not surprising, then, that they inspired one of his great compositions. You can listen to it here:

The words are in Latin, a language that is very easy to sing in. If you like this piece, you can learn the meaning of the words, and the composer’s own thoughts about them here. We’ll be here when you’re done.

Song of the Universal

Now for the challenge. One of Ola Gjeilo’s greatest works (and one which the author of this post has had the pleasure of performing) is a song for choir, piano and string orchestra. It’s called Song of the Universal, and the composer has borrowed the lyrics from the inimitable poet Walt Whitman. By the way, borrowing from another great artist is no crime. It’s actually a kind of tribute that artists pay each other. Here are the words:

Come, said the Muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the Universal.
In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed Perfection.
By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—conceal’d or unconceal’d, the seed is waiting.
Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us,
Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.
All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain;
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual Images ripening.

That probably gives you an idea of what you’re about to hear. This is moving stuff indeed, full of hope, wonder, even worship. Now, as we listen, we are going to consider some questions. Before we get to those, let’s make sure we understand some terms. As this a girl’s choir, it has four sections:

First soprano

Second soprano

First alto

Second alto

The soprano voices are high, while the alto voices are lower. As you listen to the music, think about whether what you are hearing is soprano, alto, or a harmonization of both. We also know that there is a piano, and a string orchestra accompanying. With all of that in mind, let’s listen:

Test Your Musical Knowledge

The questions are below. There are seven of them in total, and you should try all of them. Even if you don’t play the piano or a stringed instrument, you can give it a try. All forms of cheating are fully allowed. This includes:

Finding a YouTube video

Doing your own research

Asking someone knowledgeable

You can submit your answers and we will announce the winner(s) next week via email! Without further ado:

Click here to take the quiz

We hope you’ve enjoyed the challenge and learned something from this Artist Focus. As always, our team is happy to hear from you. Let us know if you have any questions by using the form below. Until next time, keep practicing!